I have been trying to understand how misery arises. What is the cause of the unhappiness we see all around us?
The scriptures tell us that the mind is the source of both misery and happiness. Even though no one wants to be miserable, we seem unable to rid ourselves of unhappiness. We run in all directions trying to discover the source of our suffering and remove it, but we fail because we are not able to accept the truth: the source of our displeasure is within us. We prefer to attribute the cause of our problems to an external source.
The mind is adept at perceiving what lies in the external world, but it does not know how to turn itself inward and see what is inside. Even if we suspect that the source of our unhappiness is within and we need to work with our own mind and heart, we still try to find an external cause. It is easy to find validation for doing so—the whole world operates this way—but deep down we know that our misery is self-created. Persisting in our attempts to locate our unhappiness elsewhere only makes matters worse.
The mind is adept at perceiving what lies in the external world, but it does not know how to turn itself inward and see what is inside.
The Atman, our inner self, is ever awake. It is always with us—telling us what is true and what is untrue, what is right and what is not right. But fear, lack of discipline, absence of self-confidence, and the habit of leaning on others causes us to ignore it. Every time our inner self counsels us to avoid a harmful action and we take that action anyway, we feel guilty. We tell ourselves we will not make the same mistake again, but driven by our inner weaknesses, by our habit patterns, or by social pressure we repeat it. Again our inner voice says, “Hey, don’t be foolish. Why are you inviting misery for yourself?” We hear it and yet we make the same mistake again. This time we feel even guiltier. We keep piling guilt upon guilt, going against the inner voice, and repeating our mistakes over and over. This leads to self-condemnation, and eventually the mind becomes so cluttered and so noisy that it drowns out the voice of the soul.
Living with guilt and self-condemnation is intensely uncomfortable. So what do we do? If we have not learned to turn the mind inward, we turn it outward and look for an excuse to blame someone else. Blaming people and external circumstances provides momentary relief, which is why we cultivate the habit of finding all kinds of problems in the external world. We think He’s a bad person…She’s unfair…Had those hateful people not done what they did, my life would be delightful…Other people are nasty…The world is ugly and cruel. Once this habit is well-established we begin to build a wall and isolate ourselves from others. But that fails to bring either peace or happiness. We begin to lose self-respect and finally isolate ourselves from ourselves. Now our misery is complete.
How can I learn to put an end to this self-created misery?
All problems, pains, and other miseries originate in the mind. The only way to overcome misery is to make the mind composed and peaceful. The scriptures tell us to protect our mind. And further, they say that once the mind is protected we will find safety and protection everywhere.
A mind governed by fear becomes defensive. As part of its self-defense it reacts violently, hurting itself and others in the process. The rules imposed by our society and the laws imposed by our government may offer short-term ways to reduce the causes of misery in the external world, but ultimately we, as individuals, have to take responsibility for eradicating the agony rooted in the depths of our own mind. That is why the scriptures talk about the process of self-transformation, and tell us that it is only through self-transformation that we can expect reformation and improvement in our external environment.
The process of overcoming misery begins with reflection on the purpose and meaning of life. Understanding this purpose intellectually creates an interest in finding it, and through further self-reflection, contemplation, and self-inquiry we nurture this interest. Eventually it matures into a burning desire to find the meaning and purpose of life here and now instead of postponing our happiness for tomorrow. Even the simple realization “I am on the path of self-discovery and freedom” becomes a source of joy, enthusiasm, and self-motivation, and we find delight in working toward that goal.
The process of overcoming misery begins with reflection on the purpose and meaning of life.
In other words, the first step to overcoming misery is to realize that there is a higher purpose and meaning in life. Everything—all experiences and objects—is simply a means to achieving this goal. As long as we know this, we will not become attached to the means but will learn how to skillfully use them to achieve the end.
The second step is to understand that happiness is the foundation for all success, both worldly and spiritual, and that happiness is a virtue of your own mind; it is your own creation. If you expect some achievement to make you happy, you will never be happy. Happiness comes from a decision. You can be happy only when you decide to be happy. If your happiness is conditional, it vanishes when that condition is removed. For example, if you are relying on your wife or husband to make you happy, sooner or later you will be miserable. If you expect happiness from your children, your wealth, your friends, or your property, you are going to be disappointed sooner or later because everything changes. Just as you are interested in your happiness, others are interested in their happiness. Just as you think others are the objects of your happiness, they think you are the object of their happiness. As long as you fulfill their desires they respect you, but when you do not they consider you a useless person.
Don’t let this knowledge disappoint you. This is the nature of the world. But when you learn to live in the world joyfully and perform your duties skillfully and lovingly with full realization that you own nothing, you don’t create an ocean of misery for yourself to drown in. When someone you love leaves you or you lose a material object you value, you have decided to be happy no matter what comes. Stick to that decision. Despite the fact that you have lost everything you are still a winner, because you have found inner peace.
With such a peaceful mind continue walking on the path. Make the best use of the resources around you, without fear or attachment. Discard useless memories and anxieties, which will otherwise haunt your mind. Remind yourself every day that you are on a mission to know who you are, why you came to this world, and what you are supposed to learn. How far have you succeeded in knowing that which is to be known? If you have to drop your body at this very moment will you have any regrets? This simple contemplation will help you stay on the path and attain freedom from all misery.